Environment

Even a Sustainable Smart Home Couldn't Withstand the Marshall Fire

Rick Williamson's home in Superior was completely lost in the Marshall Fire.
Rick Williamson's home in Superior was completely lost in the Marshall Fire. Arielle Williamson, GoFundMe
The Sustainable Smart Home Living Learning Center was more than just R. Paul Williamson’s place of residence: The house was a living demonstration of how to build a sustainable home in a normal Colorado neighborhood. But when Williamson snuck back to his part of Superior early on the morning of December 31, he found that the complex had been completely destroyed by the Marshall fire.

“When I turned the corner and saw the little museum gone and saw my house gone, it was a shock, to say the least,” Williamson says. “My next breath, basically, I said, ‘Okay, what do I got to do to get this cleaned up and get going on building it?’ I didn't waste much time on trying to take care of my misery.”

Williamson is eager to be allowed to return to his land officially, assess the damage and start rebuilding. But he knows that will take time because of the extent of the damage; around 1,000 homes and businesses were lost in the 6,000-acre burn. If he hadn’t snuck in, he wouldn’t yet know that his house was gone.

Williamson had long worked in academia, converting pickup trucks to use hydrogen power at the University of Montana while researching hydrogen and alternative energy. He'd wanted to build a sustainable home since 1971, he says; he finally started construction in 2014 and finished the project in 2015.

Williamson wasn’t home when the fire started; he was in downtown Denver at a meeting for his company, Sustainable Transportation and Energy Holdings, formerly called Rocky Mountain Rail. On his way home, when he stopped for a burger near Flatiron Crossing, he saw what he thought was a dust storm on the horizon.

By the time he returned to Superior, it was "bedlam," he recalls. He couldn’t drive to his house because of traffic, so he got out of the car and walked the final three blocks. Williamson runs three miles three times a week, but he says making it through those three blocks was physically difficult.

“Walking against that 100-mile-an-hour wind with all the soot and ash and sand blowing in my face, I mean, it was not easy, but I made it over to the house,” he describes. “I was there maybe ten minutes and they come knocking on the door and told me to get out, so I grabbed my bag and made my way back to the car and got the heck out of town, even though I had to drive through fire and smoke and zero visibility. All in all, I'm kind of glad that I'm here.”

The only items Williamson was able to save were his diary, in which he’s kept track of every car and home he’s ever owned, and his laptop and thumb drives. But now he's looking at the disaster as an opportunity to perfect his design. His property on Maple Street is two lots, so he plans to build a bungalow to be used as a sustainable starter home for a single person who needs a place to live while he rebuilds his own sustainable house.

His former home had two stories with two bedrooms and three bathrooms. The house’s envelope — a construction term for what separates the inside and outside of the building — was constructed of structurally insulated panels made in Fort Collins. The floors and trim were beetle-kill wood from Colorado, and the doors and tiles were sourced from Boulder, including the Boulder County Recycling Center. Keeping materials local is one way Williamson helped make the build more sustainable.

Other measures included positioning the roof at a 45-degree angle, which was close to the recommended 40-degree angle for optimal solar panel use in Colorado; putting most windows on the south of the house to capture sunlight; and installing what Williamson calls his geothermal light, where the foundation is lined with pipes that help keep the house at 54 degrees — the temperature of the ground — without heating or cooling, making it easier to control the home’s temperature.

Everything from the exterior design to the plumbing, which Williamson installed in a central column with no pipe longer than about five feet in length to minimize water use, was done in the most efficient way he could find.

“From [the perspective of] an inventor, innovator, wannabe architect, designer, I have been pleased with the house and how it's performed,” Williamson says. “Almost everything that I had predicted worked out well, except for my shortage of power for my electric car.” Back when he designed the house, Williamson didn’t expect to need to power an electric car. Now he does, so the next iteration of the home will account for that need by adding more solar panels. He’ll do the same for the bungalow. Williamson lost his Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck, which he’d converted to run on electricity, in the fire.

He’s also committed to setting up tracking measures he didn’t get around to last time. He’d wired the house with Cat6 wiring so that he could implement meters on every element, but had a heart attack after construction was finished and never completed that process. He tracked the home’s sustainability through his utility bills, but this time around, he wants to use sensors to get more in depth.

Aside from those changes, Williamson plans to keep the design the same. Once the homes are complete, he'll again offer tours, which he hosted open house-style on the first and third Saturday of each month. He says he used to have at least 100 visitors each month, though those numbers declined after a few years.

“I gave tours and answered people's questions, and my feeling was if each of those people that came to visit, if they just adopted one thing, whether it was my recycling or the floors or, you know, whatever it might be, then that will make a difference,” he says. One of the aspects Williamson highlighted was that while the house might not be traditionally attractive because of the roof angle, the inside was user-friendly and looked great. He wanted people to know that grass huts in the middle of nowhere aren't the only shelters that offer sustainability.

Through his STE Holdings, Williamson hopes to expand what sustainable measures can do for Colorado. The company wants to install a hydrogen-powered commuter rail system that would run between Thornton, Boulder, Fort Collins, Greeley and Denver International Airport. STE Holdings submitted the proposal for the plan to RTD this week; it would connect the extended system to RTD’s N Line, which currently runs from Union Station to Thornton, and could fulfill RTD's promised FasTracks commitments on the N Line for the agency, he notes.

The goal is for each station to have an economic development center with a sustainable village made up of homes modeled after his house and powered with wind and solar energy, Williamson says. The planned line would also feature a linear solar farm along the entire length of the right of way, which he estimates would generate enough power to fund the operation and the maintenance of the system when sold back to utility companies.

“That is the only non-tax, fiscally sustainable transportation plan that's ever existed in Colorado and, probably, around the United States,” Williamson says. According to the proposal, construction would start in 2023 and end in 2028.

Williamson is staying at a hotel while waiting to hear back about money he might get from his insurance, FEMA relief options and other sources after filling out paperwork at the Disaster Assistance Center in Lafayette, which opened January 3. A certified financial planner in a previous life, Williamson hopes to pull bits and pieces of funding together to rebuild his home.

“I've been filling out forms like a crazy man because I want to get in, get cleaned up and get building the house as quickly as possible,” he says. He credits his life experiences — including working his way through college and being in the military — with helping him orient himself toward action rather than despair.

Although all of Williamson's efforts to build the perfect home to help sustain the planet couldn't sustain the home through an unprecedented fire, he remains optimistic. He wishes he could have seen how his sprinkler system, which he installed himself, performed before ultimately succumbing to the flames. But he isn't as concerned with the past as he is with the future.

“Knowing that on the other side there is something good that can happen, but it doesn't happen by itself — you've got to work to make it happen," he says. "Coming up with a plan and a goal is the best way I know how to get to that point.”

Williamson's granddaughter, Arielle Williamson, has set up a GoFundMe for him, describing the Sustainable Smart Home Living Learning Center as the culmination of his life’s work. The fund has already reached the original $5,000 goal, but that won’t cover all the expenses of rebuilding. Even so, any funds raised beyond the goal will be donated to others in need — and there are many, since close to 1,000 homes were lost in the fire.

Williamson calls the support he’s received surreal, and has been struggling to keep up with all the phone calls and messages.

“From the builders and my contractor to family and friends, to all the agencies and everything," he says. "It's been overwhelming, really."
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire